… Given that Americans spend so much time in front of the small screen, it is no wonder television has a great influence on how we see the world. Think, for example, of two popular shows: Friends and Sex and the City, both of which take place in the extraordinarily diverse city of New York. According to the U.S. Census, over one-third of the population of New York City is foreign-born, and the city’s population is less than half white. In these two shows, however, all of the main characters are white, and the tremendous racial and ethnic diversity of their city is largely unnoticeable, even when the characters are in public. By presenting primarily white people in primarily white spaces, representations in shows such as these naturalize racial segregation. It thus seems perfectly natural to many white Americans that they themselves would live in primarily white neighborhoods and send their children to primarily white schools, even when they too live in multiracial urban areas. Racial segregation becomes completely normal and desirable.
Because television shapes how we see the world, it is important to consider how various groups are portrayed in television shows…Television, it turns out, is mostly black and white. Overall, whites and blacks are over-represented, and all other groups, including Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans, are under-represented …
Portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans
Darrell Hamamoto (1994) analyzed representations of Asians and Asian Americans on television between 1950 and 1990. He found that Asian men were often represented as foreign, sinister, uni-dimensional, effeminate characters. Whereas Asian men are often presented in US media as asexual or effeminate, Asian women are often portrayed as hypersexual. There are two primary ways that Asian women are presented: the Dragon Lady and the Butterfly (Rajgopal 2010). The Dragon Lady is a sinister, crafty, and destructive seductress. The Butterfly is a demure, devoted, submissive wife who is eager to please whites and men in general.
There seem to have been some gains in the representations of Asian women on television. One example is Dr. Cristina Yang, a central character in Grey’s Anatomy. Yang is a beautiful and competent doctor. Her character has substantial depth and defies the “generic Asian” stereotype by making it clear she is Korean-American and from Beverly Hills – not Korea. However, as Rajgopal (2010) points out, Cristina Yang’s character does not have the feminine qualities of white characters in the show, such as Meredith Grey. She remains enigmatic and cold, showing hints of the Dragon Lady stereotype, and of the “inscrutable Oriental.” Another example is Ling Woo, Lucy Liu’s character in the television series Ally McBeal. Similar to Cristina Yang, Ling Woo is no Butterfly. Her character is even colder, blunter, and more sexualized than Cristina Yang. Ling Woo is the quintessential Dragon Lady—the evil seductress.
Portrayals of Native Americans
In the early years of the United States, when white settlers were endeavoring to take over Indian lands in the newly formed United States, the most popular depictions of Native Americans were of savages. Over time, the “captivity narrative”—where white women and children were captured by savage natives—became a staple in American fiction throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Alongside this depiction of Native Americans as primitive and savages, an alternative depiction emerged: that of the Native American wise man or medicine man. Depictions of Native American men tend to be in either of these two categories: the savage and the wise man (Kopacz and Lawton 2011; Bird 1999; White 2012).
In popular culture in the United States, American Indian men are often eroticized and portrayed as the object of illicit lust of white women. To enhance this eroticization, American Indian men are frequently portrayed as nearly naked. At the other end of the spectrum is the Native American wise man, who is often stoic, and far from being a sex object. His wise advice is most often given to white heroes, and he often is a loner, without a family of his own. A similarity between these two stereotypical representations is that they both are often in the service of whites. The lustful, erotic savage often provides sexual pleasure to white women, and the wise man often reserves his best spiritual advice for white men. In both cases, sexuality and family life between Native Americans is largely invisible (Bird 1999).
American Indian women also tend to have a duality of representation: as an American Indian princess and a lustful savage. Pocahontas is the quintessential representation of a Native American woman: she is beautiful, erotic, noble, and fully dedicated to her white lover, Captain John Smith. At the other end of the spectrum is the squaw, who has sex indiscriminately with whites and Indians (Kopacz and Lawton 2011). Similar to the depictions of American Indian men, these depictions are from a white point of view. Native American male and female characters often have the primary purpose of serving white interests—by providing sexual satisfaction, as well as intimate knowledge of nature and other things sacred, and by helping to convince other American Indians of the importance of assimilating (Bird 1999).